Wednesday 18 September 2019

Mary Fitzgerald: 'Broken Marianne is symbol of a movement that is plotting to bring President Macron to his knees'

The damaged statue of Marianne following Paris riots. Photo: AP
The damaged statue of Marianne following Paris riots. Photo: AP

Mary Fitzgerald

Of all the images to emerge from the wave of protests that has engulfed France in recent weeks, one had a particular symbolism: the disfigured face of Marianne, storied symbol of the Republic. When the so-called 'gilets jaunes' - or yellow vest - demonstrators converged on the Arc de Triomphe last weekend, some among them were determined to leave their mark by scrawling anti-Macron graffiti on one of Paris' best known landmarks.

Others chose to gouge out the eye of a statue of national symbol Marianne inside the monument. A photograph of the damage, in which Marianne appears to be screaming in pain or fury, went viral and appeared on the cover of several newspapers and magazines.

For more than three weeks, France has been caught up in a paroxysm of protests fuelled by an often inchoate anger and sometimes marked by violence.

Last weekend saw the worst street unrest in central Paris in decades, with initially peaceful rallies tipping into running battles with riot police as looters ran amok. The French capital is holding its breath ahead of further planned protests today.

Tourist attractions and museums will be closed. The government has warned thousands of rioters and looters may come to Paris to "smash" or even "kill".

The Yellow Vests - named after the high-vis vests they wear during their protests - plan to demonstrate across the country, drawing on the momentum that has gathered in their favour over the past week. Polls show a majority of French support the protests despite the violence.

A police union has called its members to strike in solidarity with the Yellow Vests this weekend.

Secondary school and university students have staged demonstrations against educational reforms (footage of riot police forcing 150 teenagers to kneel, hands on their heads at a school 30km from Paris prompted outrage).

The blocking of a major fuel depot in the south of France has led to widespread shortages

The national mood feels mutinous and it is all focused on one man: President Emmanuel Macron. Eighteen months into his term, the 40-year-old president is facing calls for his resignation from the Yellow Vests, a movement unlike any other postwar France has witnessed in the way it burst forth online without a leader, trade union or political party behind it.

It may have been a proposed fuel tax that brought them on to the streets but the protests have expanded precisely because they tap into a deeper discontent.

The new levy was the latest of several reforms pushed by Macron and France's least well-off feel they are bearing the brunt. Divisions have become more pronounced: between urban and rural France, the centre and the struggling periphery, cosmopolitans and those drawn to the nationalism and bigotry of the far-right.

Those who feel they are left behind in Macron's France have dubbed him "the president of the rich" because of his decisions to abolish a wealth tax, change labour laws to make it easier for employers to hire and fire, and challenge long-powerful unions.

Polls repeatedly show a majority consider the former banker aloof and arrogant as president.

Ratings

Television clips showing Macron's hauteur - whether telling an unemployed man he should just "cross the road" to find a job or wagging his finger at pensioners as he told them they shouldn't complain - have embedded themselves in the public consciousness.

His approval ratings are plummeting to unprecedented lows; one poll this week showed it was down to 18pc.

No surprise then that this week, for the first time in his presidency, Macron backed down and temporarily suspended the fuel tax while promising to speak with the protesters.

"No tax merits putting our nation's unity in danger," his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said. The problem is that the Yellow Vests, lacking leaders and a coherent agenda, are almost impossible to negotiate with.

The protests are also showing sign of sabotage by more radical elements, including extremists from the far-right and the far-left who relish violent confrontation.

One prominent figure, Christophe Chalencon, has called for Macron to be replaced by the former head of the French military who quit after he clashed with the president over budget cuts.

More moderate members who were prepared to talk to the government have said they have received death threats from fellow Yellow Vests.

The French crisis is not happening in a vacuum.

Across Europe, the far-right is gloating over Macron's predicament, as are various Russian state media outlets.

Look at those who appear to see opportunity in France's troubles, and what is happening there seems very ominous indeed.

Irish Independent

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